27 April 2012

Subjective & Objective

These two terms subjective & objective occur very frequently in discussions of Buddhism. The terms are used in fairly standard ways according to psychological or philosophical norms. But there is also the suggestion that bodhi consists of a breakdown of the distinction between subjective and objective. In this essay I will look at some of the philosophical assumptions behind these two words, and suggest that they are not in fact very useful to us as Buddhists because they don't apply in the domain that most interests us: experience.

The two words are part of a cluster linked by the common word 'ject' (meaning 'to throw out, to spout') which comes from a Proto-Indo-European root * 'to do, throw, project'. The cluster of English words includes: abject, adjacent, adjective, deject, eject, gist, inject, interject, jet, jetsam, jetty, jut, object, project, reject, subject, trajectory.

Etymologically an object is something thrown (ject) against (ob-) i.e. something we come into contact with through our senses (Buddhists also saw objects as striking the senses). While a subject is something thrown under (sub-), meaning something under our control. A 'subject' of the king is subjected to their rules. Similarly we are said (psychologically) to be 'a subject' because we believe our body and thoughts to be under our control. How much this is true is debatable, but this is what the etymology tells us.

Now the suffix -ive is used to turn a verb into an adjective. So objective simply means 'of or pertaining to objects' and subjective means 'of or pertaining to control'. But time has extended the simple meaning. In the case of objective the OED suggests "anything external to the mind, and actually real or existent; exhibiting facts without emotion or opinions; objects which are seen by other observers not just the subject." There are other definitions, but these are the relevant ones. Similarly subjective is now defined in terms of "the personal, proceeding from idiosyncrasy or individuality; not impartial; belonging to the individual consciousness or perception; imaginary, partial or distorted."

So these two terms have come to represent a fundamental dichotomy: what exists in the world, and what I individually perceive, including my sense of being a unique independent self. Along with this dichotomy is the assumption that we can tell the difference between the two domains. A shared experience, for example, is more likely to be considered objective, than a private one. Though we do also doubt the objectivity of groups. It is thought that scientists who describe objects dispassionately are being objective; that they are describing what really exists, as it exists. There are some notable attacks on this view from the 20th century, but the pendulum is already beginning to swing back from the extreme relativity of French nihilism and distrust of authority. Scholars are once again seeking objectivity (scientists never stopped!) though with more caveats than in the past, so that post-modernism was not a complete loss.

Now the Buddhist model of consciousness I have described on a number of occasions, but most recently on my Rave on Phenomena. Early Buddhism grants that there are objects of the senses. It is dualistic to this extent. It grants that there is a sense faculty and that this is associated with a locus of experience (body) and with mental processes such as sensing, apperception, and categorisation. When these come together in the light of sense consciousness then we have an experience. What we are aware of, and respond to is experience: it is the complex product of interactions between sense object, sense faculty and sense consciousness. This is similar to the kind of process outlined in recent years by, for example, Thomas Metzinger. In this model we know nothing of either objects, nor of ourselves as a subject. What we know is the experience of objects and the experience of ourselves as a subject. This distinction is vitally important to get clear.

Shared and repeatable experience leaves us with only one sensible conclusion: objects exist independently of us. There's every reason to think that the early Buddhists agreed with this, and that early Buddhism was therefore a form of Transcendental Realism. That the self is simply an object of the mental faculty is more difficult to show, but I have summarised and endorsed Thomas Metzinger's ideas on the first-person perspective. I'm convinced largely because of what happens when the first-person perspective breaks down. The self is a dynamic process of self-awareness. Like Metzinger I find Antonio Damasio's accounts of how this might come about quite plausible.

The terms objective and subjective as they are used today seem to make assumptions which, if we accept the Buddhist model of consciousness, we must conclude are false. When we say "objective" we cannot be referring to what exists, because it is implicit in our model that we can say nothing about it except how we experience, and experience contains an irreducible subjective component. Indeed I've challenged people several times now to come up with an unequivocal reference to the Buddha discussing the nature of objects and so far no one has come forward to accept the challenge. The objective world becomes a short hand for what we regularly and repeatedly experience, and what seems to be experienced by other people regularly and repeatedly. And while I do say that it makes sense that these experiences must be based on something independent of the observer, I go no further than that.

The idea of subjectivity also needs to be critiqued. The subjective is said to be private and individual, our sense of being a self and being in control. But if we accept that all experiences are conditioned - i.e. arise in dependence on sense object, faculty and consciousness - then we get into a loop of subject and object. We can't be a subject unless we are simultaneously an object, and vice versa. We've tended to separate so-called "subjective experience" off - and to distrust it as a source of knowledge. But experience arises in the interactions of sense-object, faculty and consciousness. No experience can be subjective or objective, all experience is both at the same time.

One of the most important points we can make is that far from being under our control, neither the mind or the body respond easily to our commands. We have limited control at best: we cannot stop our bodies from becoming ill, ageing and dying for example; there are some reflexes we cannot over-ride; we cannot consciously control our viscera. [1] Similarly with our mind. Thoughts and impulses appear unbidden from no-where. Measurement has shown that our motor cortex becomes active some time before we consciously come to a decision to move a limb, that movements are not actually under our conscious control, despite the persistent illusion that they are. Our mind is more amenable to control perhaps, but only with rigorous training spanning years. And then it is so tightly linked to our bodies that as our body ages and becomes ill our minds are involuntarily affected. So many things affect our moods - weather, diet, exercise, social status - and none of this is under our direct control.

So if the terms subjective and objective do not even apply to the Buddhist model of consciousness, then in what sense can bodhi be said to be a breakdown of the distinction between them? We are fortunate in this respect to have the testimony of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who had a massive temporal lobe stroke that deprived her of language and disrupted her sense of self. She described being unable to distinguish where her body ended, and as a result feeling huge and extended. This is a common sensation for meditators, which even I have experienced. For Taylor it was accompanied by bliss and a sense of profundity. This is obviously a very desirable mode of functioning. She had the classic mystical experience of feeling at one with everything, and that everything was one. But in her case the cause was a massive stroke causing extensive brain damage. There can be no doubt that the stroke changed Taylor's life, and that she has dedicated herself to talking about human potential since her rehabilitation (which took many years). But did she experience bodhi? I don't know, in a way I can't know, but my sense was that despite being a likeable person that her experience had some real limitations. My main worry is that apart from having a massive stroke she did not seem to have insights into the processes which might bring about such as experience. I acknowledge the value she found in the experience, and that it is interesting and inspiring to hear her talk, but I am reluctant to pursue the experience of having a massive stroke.

I've tried to show that subjective and objective cannot have the same meaning in a Buddhist context as they do in either in philosophy or everyday speech; that really, considering the way we use these words, they don't apply. I'm resigned to talking about objects of the senses, but I don't see a role for the term 'subject' at all. I find Metzinger's more descriptive terminology - e.g. sense of self, first-person perspective - less fraught and more useful. We don't have subjectivity or objectivity, we have experiences arising from being equipped with sensory apparatus in a world of objects to be sensed. However sometimes it is safe to conclude that an experience was private: if we have a vision, but no one else in the room sees it, then it is a private experience. In this case the object may very well be an internal object such as a memory.

In the long run early Buddhism seems entirely unconcerned by the nature of objects. The nature of self-awareness gets some attention, but the main thrust of the Buddhist program is to be aware of our responses to sensory experience - of being drawn to, attached to, addicted to and obsessed by pleasure especially. The mainstream of practice seems to be paying attention to what is happening in our field of experience, and monitoring our responses to it.


  1. Most of us have control over the last part of our gastrointestinal tract, and some people do seem able to gain limited control over their body temperature and heart rate. But I've yet to read of anyone with control over, say, their liver or spleen.

20 April 2012

The Fivefold Niyāma

Music of the SpheresTHIS TEXT IS ALMOST CERTAINLY one that you have never read before because it comes from the traditional Pāli commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya ascribed to Buddhaghosa (ca. 5th century CE) and as far as I know there is no published translation.

It is interesting to me, and others familiar with Sangharakshita's Dharma teaching, because it is one of the source texts for the five niyāmas, or, more correctly, the fivefold niyāma. Using this list, which is not canonical, but first appears in the commentaries (probably in this commentary), Sangharakshita has painted a picture of conditionality as multi-layered. This is particularly important because it shows how kamma is not the only form of conditionality, and that events may have causes that are nothing to do with our actions. This has become particularly important in the literalistic West, especially under the influence of Tibetan Buddhist teachers who claim, in accordance with their tradition, that everything that happens to us is a result of our actions. This is certainly not the view of the Pāli texts (as discussed in my earlier essay Is Karma Responsible for Everything?). However the lack of translations has made it difficult for people to follow up the sources, and so I offer this one as a start.

Dīgha Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā (2.431)
Commenting on Mahāpadāna Sutta (D 14; PTS D ii.12) [1]: "It is natural [2], bhikkhus, that when a bodhisatta falls [3] from his Tusita (Heaven) form, he enters his mother's belly… this is natural." [4]
BUDDHAGHOSA [5]: says: 'ayamettha dhammatā'—here entering the mothers belly is natural (dhammatā) and is called 'this nature (sabhāva [6]), this certainty (niyāma [7]).' And the five-fold certainty [8] has these names: certainty of actions (kamma-niyāma); certainty of seasons (utu-niyāma); certainty of seeds (bīja-niyāma); certainty of thoughts (citta-niyāma); and the certainty of natures (dhamma-niyāma [9]).

This, 'the giving of pleasant consequences for skilfulness, and unpleasant results for unskilfulness', this is the certainty of actions. There is an illustration. The grounds for this are in the [Dhammapada] verse:
Not in the sky, nor the middle of the ocean,
Nor in a mountain cave;
Though terrified there is nowhere on earth,
Where one might escape from an evil action. [10]
Moreover once a woman quarrelled with her husband and strangled him. Then wanting to die herself she put a noose around her neck. A certain man was sharpening a knife and saw her about to hang herself. Wanting to cut the rope, he ran up to relieve her [calling] 'don't be afraid, don't be afraid.' The rope having become a snake he froze. Frightened he ran. Shortly after the woman died. Thus the danger should be obvious. [11] 
The trees in all the provinces acquire fruit and flowers etc. all at the same time [12]; the wind blowing or not blowing; the quickness or slowness of the sun's heat; the devas sending rain or not; [13] day blossoming lotuses whithering at night; this and similar things are the certainty of seasons. [14] 
From rice seed comes only the rice fruit; from a sweet fruit comes only sweet flavour, and from a bitter fruit comes only bitter taste. This is the certainty of seeds.
From the first aspects of mind and mental events (citta-cetasikā dhammā), to the last, each is conditioned by a condition or precondition (upanissaya-paccayena). Thus that which comes forth from eye-cognition etc. [15] is immediately in agreement [with that cognition]. [16] 
The shaking of the 10,000 world system when the bodhisatta enters his mother's belly and other such phenomena [associated with the life story of the Buddha as told in the Mahāpadāna Sutta], this is called the certainty of natures (dhammaniyāma). Certainty of natures is understood as consisting in this. This was primarily said, bhikkhus, because just this meaning explains dhammatā.



[1] dhammatā, esā, bhikkhave, yadā bodhisatto tusitā kāyā cavitvā mātukucchiṃ okkamati… Ayamettha dhammatā.
[2] Walsh "it is a rule"; or 'it is lawful'. The word dhammatā is an abstract noun from dhamma; so a first parsing suggests it means dhamma-ness. However which meaning of dhamma is being referred to. Translators and commentators agree that it is dhamma as 'nature' (i.e. having a particular nature) as when the Buddha says at his death vayadhamma saṅkhārā 'all constructs are perishable'; i.e. they are of a nature (dhamma) to decay or die (vaya). The text is saying that it is in the nature of things, the nature of the universe that the life events of the Buddha happen as they do. I have no wish to get into the theological debate that necessarily ensues from this statement, I merely wish to establish what the text says, and, following K. R. Norman's dictum, why it says that. If something is in the state of having a nature (dhamma-tā), then that nature (dhamma), is natural (dhammatā) to it. Hence we may translate ayamettha dhammatā as 'this here is natural'.
[3] Men die, but devas living in a devaloka (like Tusita) fall (cavati).
[4] The term dhammatā is then used to describe all the miraculous events of the Buddha's hagiography.
[5] Buddhaghosa is the 5th Century CE author of this commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya. He was born in Indian but worked in Sri Lanka.
[6] The word sabhāva later becomes a technical term in Mahāyāna Buddhism in its Sanskrit guise svabhāva. Here it just means 'state (of mind), nature, condition.' (PED)
[7] Niyama or niyāma the two are confused in Pāli, can be translated several ways. Obviously here it refers to something which just happens, something which always happens in the life of a Buddha, and which must happen. I focus on the last aspect here.
[8] pañca-vidha niyāmaniyāma 'certainty' is singular, and pañcavidha 'five-fold'.
[9] As we will see the term dhammaniyāma is itself defined in terms of the events described above as dhammatā.
[10] Dhammapada v.127 cited by number only in the text. This is the so-called 'law of kamma' or as here 'the certainty of actions' (see also Attwood 2008). This certainty was eroded as time went on, and eventually the Vajrasattva mantra became a way to circumvent any evil kamma, even the atekiccha: "incurable" or "unpardonable" actions (see also example A iii.146).
[11] As best as I can make out this is a magical allegorical story – the rope turns into a snake to prevent the man from saving the woman from being rescued and therefore rescued from the fate she deserves after having strangled her husband. That is to say that the results of actions are inescapable! See also note 10. above. Presumably the idea of a rope turning into a snake did not seem wholly improbable to the bhikkhu saṅgha.
[12] ekappahāreneva 'with just one blow'
[13] It is curious that modern translators often leave out the notion that it is devas who send the rain – they silently remove this supernatural cause and only allow that it rains.
[14] Sayadaw's (1978) 'caloric order' is clearly wrong in this case. What is intended is cyclic seasonal phenomena: the flowering and fruiting of trees in the same season throughout the land, winds, the heat of the sun at different times of the year, and the day night cycles. Indeed utu (Skt. ṛtu) means 'season, time' and can also refer, for example, to the menstrual cycle. I suppose one must concede that from the modern point of view the phenomena mentioned in the text are all related to the heat gradient in the earth's atmosphere caused by its movement around the sun and the tilt of its axis (which might therefore warrant the term caloric (from the Latin calor 'heat'); however the ancient Indians (even the medieval Sri Lankans) did not think in these terms in the 5th century. As I note above they see rain as being sent by devas!
[15] Meaning ear, nose, tongue, body and mind cognition.
[16] The point here seems to be the one made in the Mahātaṇhasaṅkhaya Sutta (M 38), i.e. from whatever condition cognition arises it is named after that. The cognition that arises on condition of eye and form is eye-cognition: (yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ thena teneva saṅkhaṃ gacchati. cakkuñca paṭicca rūpe uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, cakkhuviññāṇan-t-eva saṅkhaṃ gacchati - M i.259). So a contact between eye and form does not give rise to ear cognition (the formula takes no account of synaesthesia). In a sense the point here is the same as the certainty of seeds: you can't have ear cognition from eye contact.

Attwood, Jayarava. 2008. ‘Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?’ Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol. 15.

Ledi Sayadaw 1978. The Niyama-Dipani: The Manual of Cosmic Order.’ in The Manuals of Buddhism, trans. Barua, B. M., Rhys Davids, C. A. F., & Nyana. Bangkok: Magamakut Press. Online: http://www.dhammaweb.net/html/view.php?id=5

Subhuti. 2011. Revering and Relying upon the Dharma: Sangharakshita's approach to Right View. [A glimpse of Sangharakshita's recent thinking on the niyāmas as discussed with and recorded by Dharmacārī Subhuti.]
For more on the niyāmas in the context of the Triratna Buddhist Order see my friend Dhīvan's website.
For my work-in-progress on translating all the texts which mention the niyāmas see : The Fivefold Niyāma. [pdf]

13 April 2012

Formalism in the Saṅgha

In the text I will discuss in this essay, it seems as though formalism had already begun to set in to the early bhikkhu saṅgha--indeed what it appears to show is that a monastic saṅgha, as opposed to a wandering ascetic saṅhga, is itself a form of degeneration recognised before the closing of the Canon. Whether this really happened during the lifetime of the Buddha or not we don't really know, but clearly it happened fairly quickly for this story to be canonical. What follows is an abbreviated translation of the Third Instruction Story (Tatityaovāda Sutta. S 16.8; PTS S ii.208) which as the title suggests is the third of three similar stories in which the Buddha asks Kassapa to admonish or instruct (ovāda) the bhikkhus.


In Rājagaha at the squirrel feeding place. The indeed Elder Mahākassapa approached the Bhagavan, greeted him, and sat to one side. As he sat the Bhagavan said to him, "Kassapa instruct the bhikkhus, give them on a talk on Dhamma. Either you or I should instruct them, Kassapa; either you or I should give them a talk on Dhamma.

"At present, Bhante, the bhikkhus speak ill, and are unruly; they are impatient and slow to take on instructions."

"Formerly Kassapa, amongst the elder bhikkhus, there were those who lived in the wilderness (āraññikā ) and spoke in praise (vaṇṇavādina) of living in the wilderness; and they ate only from an alms bowl (piṇḍapātika) and praised living on alms food; and wore robes from rubbish heaps (paṃsukūlika ) and praised wearing such robes; and owned just three robes and praised living with only three robes; and were easily satisfied (appiccha) and praised being easily satisfied; and were contented and praised contentment; and were solitary (pavivittā) and praised solitude; and were individuals (asaṃsaṭṭha ) and spoke in praise of individuality; and exerted themselves (āraddhavīriya) and praised exertion (vīriya-ārambha) ."

"Bhikkhus who possessed such qualities where invited to sit by the elder bhikkhus. [They would say] 'come bhikkhu', and 'what is this bhikkhu's name?', and 'what a good bhikkhu indeed is he', and 'this is a bhikkhu who loves the training'."

"And the new bhikkhus would think [a bhikkhu with those qualities is really a bhikkhu, and the elder bhikkhus treat him with respect]. They would be on the path to being like that, and that would be for their welfare (hitāya) and happiness (sukkha) for a long time."

"But now, Kassapa, the elder bhikkhus are not like that."

"Now he is [thought to be] a bhikkhu who is known, famous, a recipient of the requisites of robes, alms bowl, lodging, medicine and support when ill. Him the elder bhikkhus invite to sit. [They would say] 'come bhikkhu', and 'what is this bhikkhu's name?', and 'what a good bhikkhu indeed is he', and 'this is a bhikkhu who loves the brotherhood '."

"And the new bhikkhus would think [a bhikkhu with those qualities is really a bhikkhu, and the elder bhikkhus treat him with respect]. They would be on the path to being like that, and that would be for their harm (ahitāya) and unhappiness (dukkha) for a long time."

"Of [the famous recipient of requisites] one speaking rightly might say: 'the celibate practitioner is oppressed by the misfortunes of a celibate practitioner, is overcome by what overcomes a celibate practitioner.'"

Comments on the text and translation

The first thing to note is where this dialogue takes place, i.e. in the kalandakanivāpa near Rājagaha. DOPN says of the kalandakanivāpa: "Here food (nivāpa) was regularly placed for the squirrels [kalandaka]… UdA.60; SnA.ii.419"; the identification of kalandaka as 'squirrel' is difficult to substantiate – c.f. PED s.v. kalanda ‘heap, stack’; BHSD notes variant spellings karandaka-, kalaṇḍaka- and karaṇḍaka-. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Connected Discourses, p.760) has “Bamboo Grove” which may reflect the fact that the kalandakanivāpa was said to be in the Veluvaṇa or Bamboo Grove. CST notes that the Sri Lankan printed canon has instead "sāvatthi, ārāme" in a park near Sāvatthī – which brings to mind Schopen’s article 'If You Can't Remember, How to Make It Up' on the Mūlasarvātivāda-Vinaya rules for assigning a text to a city if one is not specified in the text one has. Schopen (1997).

The phrase "slow to take on" renders the compound: appadakkhiṇaggāhina = a– + pa– + dakkhiṇa + gāhina ‘not right handed’ (c.f. padakkhina ‘to the right’). The implication seems to be that they bhikkhus are inept, as the right hand symbolises aptitude – just as it does in European culture where the Latin derived word for left-handed is sinister. In India there is the additional sense of pollution related to the left hand being used to wash the anus after defecation. Hence also keeping the right shoulder towards objects (including people) of respect. (See Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition).

The new bhikkhus (nava bhikkhu) observing the elder bhikkhus (thera bhikkhu), emulate them and thus they would be on the path to "being like that": tathā hi, or 'thus' with hi linking back to the previous sentence. The commentary glosses tathā as tesu theresu 'amongst these elders', which reinforces the sense of the newer monks becoming like the older monks.

The word ārañña is often erroneously translated as "forest" but in fact it means a place outside of the safety of the village and away from cultivated land, i.e. something more like ‘wilderness’. It is true that ārañña includes the jungle that still existed in the Ganges Plain at the time, but the word has a broader reference.

In the past, says the text, bhikkhus "wore robes from rubbish heaps" The word here is paṃsukūlika:paṃsu means 'dirt, rubbish'; kūla however means 'slope, bank' usually with reference to a river' (PED), and in this context suggests a 'heap'. So the brief meaning would be 'one who resorts to rubbish heaps' however The Dīgha Nikāya commentary glosses paṃsukūlāni as pathaviyaṃ chaḍḍita-nantakāni 'rags discarded on the ground' (DA 2.356) which suggests we should understand the word paṃsukūlika as 'one who resorts to rubbish heaps [for clothing]'.

There are two terms used to describe the bhikkhu leading a solitary life: pavivitta and asaṃsaṭṭhā. The word pavivittā suggests that they lived alone, and apart. The other word asaṃsaṭṭhā could be a simple synonym but I take the opportunity to draw out something else. It is a pp. from saṃ√sṛj 'living in groups, mixed with' (Pāli saṃsaṭṭheti? c.f. noun saṃsagga ‘contact, association’. Here I’m assuming that the negative prefix gives the word a positive force rather than being a simple negation: that the bhikkhus were once individuals rather than simply members of a group; as opposed to saying that the bhikkhus did not socialise or live in groups which is implied by pavivitta. I any case the two together emphasise aloneness.

The last quality discussed is put in two related ways: āraddha-vīriya with 'energy engaged' and vīriya-ārambha 'making a effort'. Both āraddha and ārambha are from ā√rabh 'to begin, understand', PED lists viriyaṃ ārabhati 'to make a effort'. The form of the past participle āraddha is affected by Bartholomae’s Law affecting the adding of the past participle suffix –ta to a voiced aspirated consonant so that bha + ta goes though several hypothetical stages to produce the form in use: bhta > btha > bdha > ddha.

Having observed the elder bhikkhus the new bhikkhues tend to become like them (tathattāya) This is the dative case of tathatta, an abstract noun from tatha 'thus', meaning 'the state of being thus'; The commentary explains: tathattāyāti tathābhāvāya, āraññikādibhāvāyāti attho - 'to being like that' means 'to become thus' i.e. to 'primarily becoming a wilderness dweller'. Compare the word tathāgata which is literally 'one who is thus' or 'one who is like that'.

My phrase "this is a bhikkhu who loves the brotherhood" translates sabrahmacāri-kāma. Sa- is a prefix meaning 'with, together' and is connected with Latin simul as in English words like similar and simultaneous; cārin (cari- in compounds) is a possessive from cāra 'action, behaviour, faring' and a brahmacārin is literally 'one who behaves like Brahmā' (i.e. like God) and originally the word referred to an unmarried (and therefore celibate) student of the Vedas who by convention stayed aloof from the world. Buddhists took over this characteristically Brahmanical term to mean a celibate Buddhist practitioner, i.e. a bhikkhu. The word bhikkhu means 'a beggar', and perhaps this other term brahmacārin had a more positive connotation. Often in a Buddhist words with brahma- have the connotation of ‘holy, divine’ so a brahmacārin is sometimes referred to in English as someone who practices the holy life, though I think the loading with Theistic symbolism makes this unhelpful. So sabrahmacāri- means 'with those who live as celibate monks'. Finally kāma means love or desire. Compare also the related to the word dhammacārin ‘a dhamma-farer’, ‘one who lives by the dhamma’. Members of the Triratna Order are referred to (if only by each other) using the Sanskrit equivalent dharmacārin (masculine dharmacārī; feminine dharmacāriṇī).

Note the subtle change in emphasis here: the āraññikā is said to ‘love the training’ (sikkhā-kāma), where as the famous monk (yasassin) the recipient of donations (lābhin) is said to be ‘one who loves the brotherhood’ (sabrahmacāri-kāma). The implication is that he does not love the training, and he is not one who is pavivattā or asaṃsaṭṭḥā, solitary and individual, but is a gregarious group member (na pavivttā; na saṃsaṭṭhā).


That bhikkhus changed from being freelance solitary wanderers to collective and settled monks should come as no surprise. That early Buddhists saw this as problematic may do. This is because the winners write history and Buddhist history has been, until recently, written by settled collectivists of the kind described above: concerned primarily with getting their requisites. This text must give us pause in considering the idea that cenobitical renunciants are the ideal Buddhists or that they are the preservers of the original tradition of the Buddha. Their own texts, mostly conserved with great care, show us that this is simply not true.

The problems facing the brahmacārin can be overwhelming and defeat the brahmacārin so that they up trying to make the best of saṃsāra. They try to get as comfortable as possible, and they exploit the lay community to achieve this. At worst it is an outright scam.

Following the publication of Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India, we became aware that Buddhist society was not originally two-tiered, but threefold with what Ray calls forest-renunciants, settled monastics and lay people all playing important roles in maintaining Buddhism as a way of living. The renunciants (often called bodhisattvas in early Mahāyāna texts like the Ugraparipṛccha - see Nattier) were the full time practitioners, and as the Tatityaovāda Sutta shows they were considered to be the true bhikkhus. Those less committed, or less able bhikkhus, provided the support for the bodhisattvas, and interfaced with the public, especially wealthy patrons. This function was clearly looked down upon at some time, or in some quarters before the closing of the Canon. The positive contribution they made was in setting up systems to preserve texts, and distribute the enormous wealth that soon began to accumulate in monasteries. They also acted as a kind of police force for the saṅgha, since as the Vinaya itself shows the monks were a wayward lot. But without the cutting edge of intensive meditation practice the settled monastics became worldly bald men in elaborate robes (they edged women out of the picture as much as possible). The acts of the saṅgha became mere formalism.

The Triratna Buddhist Order response to this comes on many levels. A Buddhist is not defined by membership of some group or allegiance to certain doctrines, but by the act of going for refuge. We set aside the monk/lay divide and say that commitment to practice takes precedence over lifestyle or haircut. We are all committed to practising the Dharma. To some extent each member of the Order takes on each of the three roles at different times: each of us aims to spend most of our time on Dharma practice of some kind, including right-livelihood work. For some this involves living with a family, for others living in a single-sex community or alone. All of us aim to spend some time on retreat each year, and preferably some time on solitary retreat. Obviously people have different temperaments and aptitudes, but we all contribute to a community that supports practice rather than the accumulation of assets.

The old way of concentrating resources on supporting a load of free loaders is not going to work in the West. Monasticism is and will probably remain a minority sport. Monastics, who are genuinely full-time practitioners and supported to be so, add depth to a practice community, as do those who can sustain intense solitary practice. But becoming a monk will never be a career option as it is in Asia. If we reach 1% of the Buddhist population living in full-time retreat for longish periods of time that would seem plenty. (Tibet got to 25% of the adult male population which was outrageous).

Our Western culture is in dire need of Buddhist techniques for paying attention, calming down, developing positivity and emotional robustness, and the bulk of our resources should be focussed on trying to meet that need. With some basic calm and good will we might be able to start making progress on deeper transformation - but chances are our neighbours on planet earth will need help with the basics before that. Human beings are one species. We have only one planet to live on, which we share with other forms of life. There's no realistic way to talk about being free when one's neighbours are enslaved. We must all be free, or no one is.



  • Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Wisdom.
  • Nattier, Jan. (2003) A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.
  • Ray, Reginald A. (1994) Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values & Orientations. Oxford University Press.
  • Schopen, Gregory. (1997) 'If you can’t Remember, How to Make it up, Some Monastic Rules for Redacting Canonical Texts.' in Kieffer-Pülz, P & Hartman, J. (Eds.) Baudhavidyāsudhākaḥ. Studies in Honour of Heinz Bechert. Swisttal-Oldendorf: Indica-et-Tibetica-Verl.

06 April 2012

Ātman, Ego, and Rebirth

sheaf and flail

medieval peasants thresh
a sheaf of barley with flails

WHAT FOLLOWS IS my translation of the Sheaf of Barley Simile (Yavakalāpi Sutta S 34.248), along with some threads which I draw from it. The simile relates to my research into papañca: the past participle papañcita is used in a context that helps us to understand that word. Here I will be focussing on some other implications.

I have restructured the text so that the last part condenses several pages into a couple of paragraphs - without losing anything of importance. The central metaphor of the Yavakalāpi Sutta is that how we think about our existence determines whether we bound or free.

Sheaf of Barley Simile

Suppose that a sheaf of barley were laid at a crossroad. And six men might come bearing flails, and those six men might thresh that sheaf of barley. That sheaf of barley would be well threshed by those six flails threshing. Then a seventh man might come bearing a flail, and he might also thresh the sheaf of barley. So that sheaf of barley would be more well-threshed by that seventh flail threshing.

Just so the uneducated hoi polloi [1] are struck in the eye by pleasant and unpleasant forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, and mental objects. If an uneducated hoi polus[2] strives after future rebirth, that foolish person is more well-battered, just as the sheaf is more well threshed by the seventh flail.

Once upon a time the devas and asuras were massed for battle. The Asura Lord Vepacitti addressed the asuras: "If, sirs, in the midst of the battle the asuras are victorious and the devas are defeated, then binding Sakka, Lord of the Devas, with bindings, with his neck as the fifth[3], then lead him to me at Asurapura (the City of the Asuras). Sakka also addressed the devas: "If, sirs, in the midst of the battle the devas are victorious and the asuras are defeated, then, binding Asura Lord Vepacitti with bindings, with his neck as the fifth, then lead him to me at Sudhamma, the Hall of the Devas. In that battle the devas were victorious and the asuras were defeated. Then the thirty three devas, binding Asura Lord Vepacitti with bindings, with his neck as the fifth, lead him to Sakka, Lord of the Devas, at Sudhamma, the Hall of the Devas. There Asura Lord Vepacitti is bound with bindings, with his neck as the fifth.

When Asura Lord Vepacitti thought "the devas as just (dhammika) and the asuras are unjust (adhammika) now here I am going to the city of the devas”, then he perceived himself released from his binding with the neck as fifth, and possessing and endowed with the five divine cords of pleasure enjoying himself. When, however, Asura Lord Vepacitti, thought "the asuras are just and the devas are unjust, now I will just go to the asura city”, then he perceived himself as bound by bindings with the neck as fifth. And the five divine cords of pleasure faded away. So subtle were the bonds of Vepacitti, but more subtle are the bonds of Māra. Thinking (maññamāno)[4] is the binding of Māra, not thinking is release from the Evil One.
'I am…'
'I am this…'
'I will become…'
'I will not become…'
'I will be beautiful…'
'I will be ugly…'
'I will be aware…'[5]
'I will be unaware…'
'I will be neither aware nor unaware…'
…is an opinion (maññita), an anxiety (iñjita), a writhing (phandita), a proliferation (papañcita), [6] a state of conceit (mānagata)…

Opinions, anxieties, writhings, obsessions and states of mind are a disease, a boil, an arrow. 'We will dwell without the conceit of opinions, without the conceit of anxieties, without the conceit of writhing, without the conceit of obsessions, having destroyed conceit' this is how you should train.

The first point to make is that opinions etc, including papañca, are something that we add to the perceptual process, they are the seventh flail. We're already battered by the experience of our six senses, and then we add to the battering. This is consistent with texts such as the Salla Sutta which make a similar distinction between the pain from the senses, and the suffering of our reactions to pain. However the specific thing that we add in this case is striving after future rebirth (āyatiṃ punabhavāya ceteti).

However what got me thinking about this text today was that I was reconsidering my blog post Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman. It is here that I note my discovery, I think for the first time, that no Brahmin ever talks about ātman in the Pāli Canon, and that the Buddha never debates the subject with a Brahmin. This strongly suggests that, at the very least, we have to re-assess the idea that the Buddha was familiar with the Upaniṣads, or the extent to which the Buddha (i.e. early Buddhists) might have been familiar with Upaniṣadic themes.

In Yavakalāpi Sutta the Buddha takes an approach to self that, as far as I know, is not one that is found in the Upaniṣads. The statements above--the 9 statements starting with 'I am' (asmīti)--are not about an essential or eternal self; much less the merging of the self into brahman for the attainment of immortality. Where the Upaniṣadic ātman is trans-personal and identified with creation or creator, these statements are very much concerned with personal identity and personal continuity. So in reading this text we are not talking about the Upaniṣadic ātman, we are talking about the simple sense of being a self and having a first-person perspective.

Coming back to future rebirth, we see that seven of the nine statements use the future form of the verb, i.e. bhavissāmīti--'I will be', or 'I will become'--and therefore concern people's anxieties about a future life. It is entirely natural in a culture with a rebirth eschatology to be anxious about future lives, indeed as a moral technology this belief system actually depends on people having these anxieties to motivate their compliance with moral norms.

But this text is saying, quite distinctly, that opinions or anxieties about a future life are sources of suffering over and above the suffering induced by the senses. The ideal disciple does not indulge in opinions and anxieties about future lives. We might say that this is because they train for release from saṃsāra. However consider the simile involving Vepacitti which seems to be an allegory with the message that how we think about our sense experience, or (perhaps) what we make of our sense experience, is precisely what binds us to saṃsāra.

There's a interesting feature of the text. For humans being bound by the five cords of sensual pleasure (pañca kāmaguṇa) is synonymous with being caught in saṃsāra. The devas and asuras however operate in a different way. When Vepacitti perceives things correctly--perceives the devas as lawful or just (dhammika)--he is endowed with the divine version of the five cords. When his perception is distorted, the cords fade away. And note that the text speaks of seven flails related to the five physical senses, the mental sense, and then striving after rebirth as the seventh; while there are only five cords of sensual pleasure, and thinking. Indeed the problem for humans is precisely thinking (maññamāno), which is the verb usually associated with activity of mind (manas).

In any case the message is quite clear: even if you do believe in rebirth, it only causes unhappiness to think about rebirth; it only causes unhappiness to wish for a better rebirth; it only causes unhappiness to speculate about the nature of rebirth; in short: thinking in terms of being reborn is generally quite unhelpful. The whole point of Buddhism is to be liberated from rebirth, to not be reborn, to escape from the cycle. What the allegory of Vepacitti suggests is that if you even think in terms of rebirth, then you are caught in Māra's bonds. So the disciple should not be thinking in terms of rebirth at all, not having opinions or anxieties or conceits with respect to rebirth.

Therefore, even if you do believe in rebirth, there is no advantage in thinking about it or talking about it, and considerable disadvantage in doing so. It is best not to think about rebirth at all, since thinking in those terms binds you to Māra's realm. Belief in rebirth only leads to speculation, worry, proliferation and conceit which poison our minds.



[1] assutavā puthujjana: suta 'heard' sutavant 'possessing the heard' i.e. educated; puthu (many) jana (people). Greek hoi polloi 'the many'.
[2] pollus is the singular of polloi.
[3] This appears to mean bind his four limbs plus his neck.
[4] The word refers to all kinds of mental activity: thinking, imagining, having opinions; being convinced, being sure. The context suggests that here it refers to having opinions.
[5] saññin – possessing perception or recognition, a perceiver.
[6] The word iñjita is a past-participle (used as substantive here) from iñjati 'to shake, turn about, move, or vacillate'. In Pāli trembling is often associated with fear. The Pali Commentary says: "the reason for the meaning of 'iñjitaṃ' etc., is that through the vices (kilesa: lobha, dosa, moha, i.e. greed, aversion, and confusion ) beings shake (iñjita) and writhe (phandita), and are obsessed (papañcita) because they are afflicted by states of carelessness."
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